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“Just a Phase” or Something More Serious? Your Teen and Depression

We all know teens are moody. They can oscillate regularly between happy or sullen, chatty or withdrawn, carefree or weighed down. None of these fluctuations are surprising to us, and although annoying and bewildering they aren’t generally alarming. It is easy to pass these things off on hormones and say it is just a phase. But how can we know there isn’t something more serious going on in our teen’s life? With our society’s mental health epidemic, “depression” feels like another buzzword. You may have that kid who tends to exaggerate everything, and so you roll your eyes when they bemoan how depressed they are. Or maybe you’re at the other end of the spectrum, and your previously outgoing and bubbly teen is suddenly withdrawing and you find yourself concerned even though they insist that “everything is fine.” Whatever case you may be in, there are some things about teen depression that you need to know. 

Susan Weinstein, co-executive director of programs and operations at Families for Depression Awareness states that  “…one in five young people will develop depression before they reach age 25.” That number has been increasingly on the rise and only continues to climb at an alarming rate. With numbers like that, we as parents need to be extra vigilant about watching our kids’ mental health and getting them the help they need as quickly as possible. As someone who had a child that struggled with depression, I am well aware of the crushing weight and devastating heartbreak of watching your child suffer. It can be easy to feel lost, overwhelmed, and unsure of how to help them (especially if they resist the help you offer.) Depression is a huge and daunting mountain, but it is not insurmountable. There IS hope, there IS help, and there IS treatment. My hope is that this article gives you the information and support you need to know that you and your teen can make it through the dark tunnel of depression and get to the light on the other side. 

In order to help our kids, we need to first understand what depression is and what signs and symptoms to be looking for. Depression is not something to be swept under the rug or ignored. It is a real, diagnosable mental illness characterized by chemical and physical changes in the brain. If you have any family history of depression, be on high alert as it can run in families. However, it can also be triggered by stress so don’t write it off if there is no past family history either. The symptoms look different in everyone and they can vary in intensity. One way to tell if it is depression versus just a mood swing is if you notice a problem with your teen’s day-to-day functioning (i.e. school, work, relationships.) Symptoms of depression can include:

  • Change in mood: frequent and prolonged feelings of hopelessness, depression, or irritably
  • Decreased interest or pleasure in activities, may have trouble going to school, or may have a sudden change in friends 
  • Significant weight change or change in appetite
  • Change in sleep: sleeping too much or too little
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Negative self-perception: feeling worthless, or feeling excessive or inappropriate guilt. 
  • Lack of attention to appearance or hygiene
  • Problems thinking clearly: diminished ability to think, concentrate, or indecisiveness, may see a drop in grades 
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Reckless behavior: using drugs and alcohol or running away
  • Aggression
  • Self-harm: thoughts of death or suicide or acts of self-harm

Keep in mind that you may not always recognize your teen’s depression because only the one experiencing it knows the real depth of its weight. To those watching, depression can sometimes just look like normal mood swings, laziness, underachievement, social problems, or other illnesses. If your child has opened up and expressed feelings of depression, NEVER dismiss them or tell them it is just a phase and they’ll be fine. If they have told you they feel depressed, or you are seeing signs of depression reach out and get help immediately. Early intervention is so important in helping our kids before depression completely takes control of their lives.

The first step is to reach out to your child’s pediatrician to figure out the best treatment plan for your individual situation. It could be therapy sessions, medication, or simple lifestyle changes. They may be resistant to the idea at first, but in time they will come to see you reached out for help out of love for them. Once you have begun the process of getting help, don’t feel locked in to one treatment method or one health care provider. If one isn’t working, keep looking around until you find one that is. If your child is seeing a counselor, make sure you land on someone who your teen likes and feels comfortable with! There are an abundance of options including online or texting counselors if they find that to be an easier way to express themself. Allow them to share with you how they are feeling about their healing process by making yourself a safe place for them.   

As moms, we are in pain when we see our kids in pain. It hurts our hearts to see them suffer, and it stings even worse when the depression causes them to withdraw, shut down, or recoil at our longing to help them. Remember that depression has changed the chemical make-up of their brain. They may lash out and say hurtful things or they may seem completely apathetic towards you. Those moments wound our mama hearts more than our kids can ever fathom. But what our children need most from us when they are struggling is our unconditional love and an ever-present, non-judgemental listening ear. Create that space for them to open up to you without pressure or nagging. Ask questions more than you give answers and listen far more than you advise or critique. Resist the urge to defend, dismiss, or deny what they are telling you and just allow them to express how they feel. 

Depression can be a long and painful road for both of you, but with treatment and support your teenager can make it through. Find a support system, outlet, and resources for yourself too. This burden is far too heavy to carry alone, and you are certainly not alone in this challenge. Remind yourself when the days seem especially dark and heavy that this is not the end of your child’s story. Depression doesn’t have to win. We had some days that I feared all hope was lost, but my daughter is now living a healthy, happy, and productive life, and I know that your teen will too. You are both stronger than you know!